Merry Christmas Eve, everyone!
Even if Christmas isn’t your thing, either because you don’t celebrate it due to religious beliefs or because Christmas was never a major part of your life or because you find the whole season insufferable, I’d like to hope you can at least appreciate a time of year where everyone tries to be a little nicer to each other and at least pretend to get along with our relatives.
And Christmas most definitely came early for the New England Patriots, who easily handled the Buffalo Bills to clinch their 10th straight AFC East title, extending their own NFL record. Not only that, but every single game in the NFL seemed to fall the Patriots way, and they now once again find themselves in the driver’s seat for a coveted playoff bye.
- I never thought I’d be saying this...but yesterday’s game against the Buffalo Bills was a must-win. Usually New England hosting Buffalo in December is more a matter of finally getting a glimpse of that safety nobody had heard of before April that the Patriots took in the second round of the draft and the backup QB as the Patriots rest their starters. But New England needed to handle their business yesterday, and they...did, I guess.
- I don’t want to poo-poo a game in which the rushing attack was so dominant and the secondary was completely lights out. I really don’t. I just want to recognize that the Patriots were up against Glass Joe yesterday, not King Hippo.
- The only real issue I have with a game like this one is that it’s hard to break it down in a way that most fans would find all that interesting. I suppose I could talk about Shaq Mason as a pulling guard and the zone blocking scheme that allowed Sony Michel to read his cuts, and I could talk about how impressive it is that the linemen were able to maintain strong gap integrity while handfighting a very strong Bills defensive line - but instead I think I’ll just say that Pats run ball. Pats run ball good. Good runs good wins.
- Sony Michel led the attack with 116 yards and a score on 18 carries for a phenomenal 6.4 yards per carry average. What continues to impress me most about Michel is how rarely he gets stopped in the backfield and his ability to find tiny openings as the play finishes to squirt through for an extra yard or two. I have long since accepted the fact that I am physically incapable of eating a hot dog without getting ketchup and/or mustard on my shirt, no matter how many napkins I tuck into my collar. I could cover myself in a HAZMAT suit, and a dolllop would still find its way onto my shirt. Sony Michel is the mustard on the tucked in napkins of the NFL.
- I’m always amazed by how many times players in the NFL hobble off the field completely unable to put weight on a limb, only to sprint right back onto the field two plays later. I tweak my back changing the channel and I’m out of commission for a week.
- I watched this game in Connecticut with my father, who continues to be the guy who laughs at almost every commercial. If you’re wondering how the hell they’re able to keep all of these crappy shows on the air, you can blame Papa Shane.
- It would be easy to get on Tommy B today for a pretty lousy performance overall - 13 completions for 136 yards, a TD, and two picks is a Mark Sanchezian stat line. And he wasn’t very accurate overall and never really got himself into a rhythm. But the Patriots really didn’t need him to do much besides hand the ball off and run the occasional checkdown play.
- That said... two Brady-related notes I have jotted down more this year than any other year I have been writing for the Pulpit combined are “accuracy” and “decision making.” He isn’t accurate on a fair number of his throws, and he seems to have allotted himself an extra four or five awful decisions this season as opposed to the usual one or two. Too much back foot release and protecting himself earlier than he should, which I guess makes sense if he’s trying to survive for another few years in a league dominated by 22-year-olds that get bigger and faster and stronger and meaner with each new rookie class.
- Cordarrelle Patterson has become exactly what I was hoping he would be in this offense and more. I had him pegged as a return man, gadget receiver, occasional deep threat, and fourth option in the passing game. He has added to that an ability as a runner that I never saw coming, and if I recall correctly he has thrown blocks as both a fullback and a tight end this season.
- Defensively, the Patriots didn’t really have to do much; the Bills are just atrocious offensively. Josh Allen actually played pretty well, but his receivers didn’t seem to have any interest in hanging onto the ball or running the correct routes.
- However, you can’t blame the drops entirely on the Bills. Early reports state that the Patriots are also currently under a multi-million dollar investigation by the NFL, as they have been accused of illegally manipulating the trajectory of the Earth to keep the sun in Buffalo’s eyes.
- Great day overall from the linebacking corps, whose responsibility seemed to be primarily spot-drop into the underneath zones and spy Allen as they accounted for his mobility. That put a lot of the responsibility on the front line to stop the stretch runs, particularly given New England’s performance over the past few weeks on that particular play, but overall it went well.
- Gronkowski has drawn linebacker coverage consistently this season, and it hasn’t been a mismatch. Them’s the facts.
- Gronk also saw very limited snaps early on, with Dwayne Allen serving as the lone TE on early downs. To those of you who think that the Patriots have been deliberately saving Gronk for the playoffs, you get to add a little more tinfoil to your hat this week.
- One think I can’t help but wonder is what his current emotional state is. I’m not going to sit here and be a “body language” guy... but the bottom line is that Rob Gronkowski is a hulking behemoth who is perpetually 14 years old. He’s a guy who has always played with passion, and the amount of fun he has out on the field has always been so transparent. He can’t be having any fun at all this season, and given what we know about him and his personality, you kind of have to question whether that’s feeding into his current funk.
- The NFL went to commercial after the Bills missed the FG attempt following the Rex Burkhead turnover with eight seconds left in the quarter. The Patriots ran a running play, and the quarter ended, at which point the NFL went to commercial again. And the league acts like it’s such a mystery why fans complain about the flow of the game.
- I propose that we add another officiating team to all NFL games that monitors the referees. They can throw flags for penalties like taking too long to make the call, missing blatant penalties, poor ball spot, and ticky tack penalties.
- This was the most basic Patriots offensive scheme I can remember watching in a very long time. I keep trying to break the game down in terms of creating mismatches, audibling out of calls to stymie the blitz, and presnap reads, but there really wasn’t much of that. Tommy B hit his outlet receivers when he had to and otherwise rode the running game to a two score lead that was basically the game. The most creative play of the entire first half was the Patterson jet sweep that they ran four times for 66 total yards.
- Buffalo couldn’t do anything on runs up the middle. Danny Shelton was active. Just sayin.
- Despite how well the Patriots were moving the ball on the ground, I have absolutely zero confidence that they were going to put any points on the board before the half. What used to be their biggest strength - the second quarter/third quarter double dip - isn’t even a weakness; it’s a complete nonfactor.
- Of Tommy B’s 11 picks this year, at least three or four of them have bounced right off of receivers hands and directly into the hands of the defenders. I’m taking the 2018 season as the bounceback for Brady’s 2011 season where he only had four picks, but could have had 10 or 11 based on weird bounces. The football gods always restore balance sooner or later.
- I actually found myself getting kind of excited for Buffalo field goals, as it meant a Patterson kick return - which, based on the gameplan yesterday, represented their best chance for a play that wasn’t a run or a quick out.
- That the Patriots finally got into the end zone in the 2nd half and then Buffalo just marched right down the field in four plays was extremely disheartening. Thank Tebow for that fumble.
- The Patriots defense went almost six whole quarters without allowing a single touchdown, and the one they did allow came in garbage time. The way offenses are struggling all across the league right now, if this D can continue to play the way it has (particularly in the secondary), who the hell knows what’s going to happen in the postseason.
- What a godsend JC Jackson has become. He’s the only DB who was in on all 61 defensive snaps. His instincts are spot on and he has the hips of a late 90s Shakira. I wonder if Jackson’s emergence as a legit starter will finally buck the trend of the Patriots taking seven DBs in the 2nd and 3rd rounds of every draft, none of whom ever end up making a dent in the league. One of these days, I’m going to walk into a local community center and see Cyrus Jones, Ras-I Dowling, Jonathan Wilhite, Jordan Richards, Terrence Wheatley, Darius Butler, Brandon Merriweather, and Tavon Wilson all holding each other while crying.
- The good thing about games like this one is that at no point did I ever think that it wasn’t in the bag and I got to just wait around for the win to happen. The negative about games like that is that it’s never all that exciting when they win.
- The Patriots actually clinched the AFC East before this game was even over, as the Jags took down the Dolphins and that game ended while there was still about two minutes left to play. So we can all look forwards to a slew of “The Patriots were handed another AFC East Championship” articles this morning.
- The Patriots are all but a lock for the 2 seed now. Beat the Jets at home, and they get the bye. They can still take the 1 seed, but they’d need to win and for both KC and the Chargers to lose against Oakland and Denver respectively. LA might lose to the Broncos, but I’ll be blown away if the Chiefs choke at home against what is probably the worst team in the NFL.
- I made it this far into the Fan Notes without mentioning Josh Gordon. I wasn’t planning on addressing it, to be honest, but I feel like I should.
- Addiction is a real thing, and it’s something we need to take very seriously. It’s easy to dismiss professional athletes like Gordon as overprivileged divas who can’t get their act together, but this is is fifth suspension now; it goes deeper than that. It was great to see him in a Patriots uniform, and I was as guilty as anyone of thinking selfishly when I first heard that he wouldn’t be catching passes from Brady anymore by making it all about the team’s Super Bowl chances, but now I just hope that he gets the help that he needs. Football is a game. Life is life.
- And if you’re dealing with an addiction of some kind, you aren’t weak. You aren’t a failure. You have nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about. Mental health is just as important, if not more so, than physical health.
- Get help. Reach out to your family or friends. There are lots or resources available if you need them. You can even reach out to me if you want - I’ve been told I’m a good listener, at least I think I have, I wasn’t really paying attention. But no need to suffer through it alone.
- And while I’m being all serious, there’s something else I need to say: Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” is a terrible song. There. If you disagree, that’s fine, but just know that you’re wrong.
Have a great holiday, everyone - here’s hoping that Santa didn’t have time to check that list twice.